Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Emor

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Emor, contains laws that govern a Kohen. We read that, with few exceptions, a Kohen cannot be in the same place with the body of someone who has died.  It means never attending the funeral of a friend.

The modern questions around this one detail would only amplify the problem.  If a Kohen cannot enter a cemetery, would that include being on a plane flying over a cemetery?  Is there a height at which we say the presence of the cemetery below is nullified?  What about being on a plane with the body of someone being transported to Israel?  Can a Kohen ever enter a hospital that has a morgue in the basement?  The more we think about it, the more expansive the problem.  Can a Kohen walk in New York city where the Twin Towers once stood – not an official cemetery but the ashes of many are buried in the ground there.

It is easy to see that even singular comments in the Torah can sometimes clash with the mundane lives we lead.  Throughout Jewish history, we have engaged in the process of finding ways to live with Jewish law and Torah.  Not because it’s convenient, but because the Torah itself commands us ‘vichai bahem’, ‘and you shall live by them’.  We are to find ways to bring them into our lives meaningfully. In fact, millennia of Jewish thought and texts are the product of our creative ways to not feel imprisoned by our commandments, but to thrive by living within their structures.

Kohanim cannot be present in the same place as the body of a deceased person.  We define ‘place’ as the common roof, not the individual rooms of a house.  We simultaneously recognize both our need to mourn, and that we live within Torah and Divine revelation.  Today, a Jewish funeral home will build a room with a separate roof so any Kohen can attend and honour someone who has passed away.  

As is our way, we always search for the place where Divine concepts and our human expressions stand together on common ground.

 I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Shemini

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Shemini, begins by telling us about “the eighth day” of consecrating the Kohanim.  Amidst the routine of offering sacrifices, a horrific tragedy occurs within Aaron’s family on this day.  The problem is, there is no ‘eighth day’.

Genesis clearly outlines a seven-day cycle.  Everything that was created fits within the structure of seven days.  We learn to feel secure in the number seven —the number that represents completeness, stability, and consistency.  

So what do we do with the ‘eighth day’?

The other time the Torah focuses us onto the eighth day is the commandment of Brit Milah.  God commands that a parent circumcise their baby boy on the eighth day of his life.  It’s a ritual that is both challenging and mysterious.  Each person present at a Brit ceremony cringes and celebrates at the same time.  We experience conflicting emotions that overlap within seconds of each other.  

In this week’s parshah, Shemini, which means ‘The Eighth’, we read of Aaron losing two of his sons in a shocking and inexplicable way.  Inappropriate ritual leads to their deaths.  We do not understand what happened, as we rarely understand it when death comes from nowhere and changes things forever.  

We cannot unlock the mystery of the eighth day.  It is where we find the hidden, underlying fabric of God manifesting in the universe.  When we find ourselves in the eighth day, where the unknowns of life can take over, we appreciate the seventh day, Shabbat, even more.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Tzav

As we continue to read of biblical sacrifices, we sit today and ask how these commandments can be relevant in our current lives.  Parshat Tzav, this week’s Torah reading, outlines the sacrifices and all their details.  Eventually, Jewish history will bring the sacrificial system to a halt with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  From then on, Judaism forbids the bringing of any sacrifices.

Yet, we continue to read of them, and we continue to mention them in our prayers.  If we are forbidden to bring sacrifices, why do we keep their details so alive?

In fact, Jewish tradition emphasizes sacrifices even more by stating that children should begin their study of Torah with the book of Leviticus, the laws of sacrifices.  One of our oldest texts explains that children begin with studying sacrifices because the goal of the sacrifices was to bring us back to a place of purity, and our children always exist in a state of purity, so “let the pure connect with the pure” and strengthen us.  

The Hebrew word for sacrifice in the Torah is the word korban.  It means ‘drawing near’.  In the ancient world we are taught to draw near to God through physical sacrifices.  Later, the Sages teach us that we can also draw near to God through studying Torah and speaking of the details of sacrifice.  The Midrash tells us that when our children learn of their Judaism, and their priceless legacy of Torah, they draw all of us closer to God.

Physical sacrifices no longer speak to our Jewish reality, but we keep them present in our religious view and our prayers.  We understand that the goal is to create a personal closeness with God and to use the power of that relationship to change the world.  

There are infinite ways to get there –watching our children learn of their ancient unbroken Jewish chain is one of those ways.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayikra

This week, we start the third book of the Torah, ‘Vayikra’ (Leviticus).  God calls (‘vayikra’) to Moses.  But this first word of the book has a scribal anomaly: the last letter, an aleph, is written smaller than the other letters.  

Interestingly, the last book of the Hebrew Bible, Chronicles, starts with an aleph for the word Adam, but the aleph at the beginning of that word is larger than the other letters.  Two alephs, one smaller and one larger.

We notice that Adam, the first human being, and Moses, our greatest Jewish leader, appear to be presenting us with opposite views.  The Midrash tells us that the aleph is smaller when God calls Moses because Moses is very modest and wants people to think that God happens to speak to him, not that God seeks him out.  If we remove the aleph in ‘vayikra’ it would mean ‘it just happened to be’.  Moses accepts his role as leader but is personally very modest and does not want the attention.

On the other hand, Adam, who represents all of humanity, has an enlarged aleph in his name to show a stronger, less humble, more confident presentation.  When it comes to humanity, there may be a greater calling.

We need both to complete a portrait of Jewish response.  In our personal lives, we are taught to be modest.  Jewishly, modesty doesn’t mean we think less of ourselves, it means we think of ourselves less often.  But when it comes to looking beyond ourselves, looking at others, entering the picture of peoplehood and humanity, we are to remember Adam and the larger aleph.  We are to find our confident, stronger voices and unite them to promote peace and protect the innocent.

The two books, Vayikra and Chronicles, remind us of both the power we have to restrain ourselves and the power we have to speak loudly and change the world.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Pekudei

This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, tells us that Moses put the Ten Commandments into the Ark of the Covenant. Both sets of tablets – the ones he broke, and the ones he delivered to Israel. The Ark of the Covenant held both the broken pieces and the whole tablets.
 
When something is broken, it cannot function as intended, and we are taught to throw it away. But when something is broken, it does not mean it is useless. Certain things can still function, sometimes to remind us of important lessons or to motivate us to find repairs. Broken things can be cautionary tales.
 
In Judaism, a core value is our commitment to Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world. We believe the world is a place filled with cracks and breakage by the very nature of how life functions. We do not walk away. On the contrary, we commit ourselves to find new and creative ways to implement a change, a healing, a repair.
 
Our eyes were meant to move from the shards of broken tablets to the whole ones and back again, always aware that the potential of each to become the other is quite real.
 
This week we’ve been watching one country try to break another. It is happening across an ocean, seemingly distant from us, but we might struggle with layered family histories in both Russia and Ukraine. It’s easy to get confused about what we feel. In these moments we listen to our Jewish values reminding us to respond with support, with donations and with our voices.
 
We remember that the Ark of the Covenant held both the broken and the complete. While we remember the harsh reality of the shattered one, our eyes would always move to the other, inspiring us to find ways of repairing so it becomes whole again.
 
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat -– our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.
 
Shabbat shalom,
Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Ki Tisa

Judaism and the arts have always spoken to each other in halting conversations.  The Ten Commandments forbids us graven images. We don’t have a strong history of visual arts.  In fact, we might think that art is discouraged, and perhaps the artist is to be marginalised. But is it all visual art that is forbidden, or is it the creation of an idol?

We definitely have a rich history of singing, dancing and creative storytelling –all the other major art forms.  In fact, some of our most artful quips lie in the legacy of Yiddish curses (‘May our enemies go to hell and only pack sweaters’).  

Even with our hesitancy around visual arts, the Torah this week, in parshat Ki Tisa, discusses the heart of an artist.  We meet the first Jewish artist, Bezalel Ben-Uri, and we immediately notice his name: ‘Bezalel’ means ‘In the shadow of God’, and ‘Ben-Uri’ means ‘Child of My Light’.  The artist is to feel most comfortable in the greys, in the shadows, never seeing the world as black and white.  At the same time, the artist is to see something new, a light, an inspiration.  That is what embeds into the art that is produced, the windows offered for new perspectives.

It continues to say that God inspires the heart of the artist; God is the Divine Muse.  Since God is infused into creation itself, it is the universe that becomes the inspiration.  It is the view of eternity that opens the artist.  

Judaism does not dismiss the artist, on the contrary, we are shown the potential power to inspire and to influence.  We are cautioned not to worship such power or to ignore its influence.  The artists in history have often sacrificed more than we can imagine by being so powerfully inspired.  

In fact, these layers that lie between the artist and God are so complex, we often can’t imagine their implications.  If God answers all prayers, Beethoven is not deaf and the music he gives would not change the world.  

May we always be inspired by these souls.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish. time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Terumah

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, God teaches Israel how to create holy space. We’re taught how to build a Mishkan, a Tabernacle, a place for rituals. In these instructions are the details of the Menorah, the main light source, but the descriptive language is striking because it is describing a tree.
 
The Menorah is to have “branches,” “calyx,” “petals,” “stems” and “almond blossoms.” The wicks are to sit inside ‘almond blossoms’ and give light forward. In fact, much of the language used to describe the entire Mishkan is the language of nature and relationships. While most of the Mishkan objects are lost to us, the image of the Menorah has sustained into our world and into our homes.
 
But when we think of trees, we do not think of them as giving us light, we think of them as giving us oxygen. We have a physically symbiotic relationship with trees because we exhale carbon dioxide, which they absorb to form oxygen, which they release into the air that we then breathe. We inhale what they exhale, and they inhale what we exhale. We need each other to breathe.
 
Jewishly, when we think of light, we think of knowledge, the understanding of the word ‘enlighten.’ Light is also symbolic of our souls. We light candles in memory of others, and we light two Shabbat candles for the enhancement of our souls that we experience each Shabbat –the ‘twin’ soul we all welcome for the hours of Shabbat. Light, in Judaism, is strongly Kabbalistic, mysterious and symbolic of the infinite.
           
But the Torah has told us to create the Menorah, our source of light, and symbolically think of the trees. Is this not a mixed symbol?
           
Judaism always teaches that our bodies and our souls are equally holy, and we must treat them both with awe. The air we breathe sustains our bodies while the symbols of light, knowledge and spirituality sustain our souls. We must never think of ourselves as divided beings, but as holistic creations with Divine Intent.
           
The Menorah is perfectly described to us as the combination of air and light. Each time we saw it, we would remember our own holiness, and that every breath we take is an opportunity to bring more light to the world.          
    
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat­ – our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.
 
Shabbat shalom,
Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Mishpatim

This week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim, contains the famous phrase: “an eye for an eye”.   It introduces a list of injuries that are to be repaid with the same injury.  In the ancient world, chances are these words were taken literally, but in Jewish texts, we see that the discussion begins, almost immediately, on whether it is the actual eye, or the monetary equivalent.  

We know that, in the end, the Jewish judicial process will introduce the concept of equivalence within the law –an assessment of damages, rather than the actual infliction of damages.  But how did we become so bold as to interpret Torah in this way?

Interestingly, the discussions do not begin with a question of whether a court should be inflicting physical damage on anyone, since even imprisoning someone is taking away physical freedom.  The debate centres on whether we could actually do what the Torah has told us to do.  What if the injury is only partial –could we be sure that the court’s action would likewise only partially injure in the same way?  In other words, the Torah has told us to do something we are incapable of doing.  We view these moments as invitations to engage with our Torah and explore it from the inside.

Generally, we understand that everyone moves from the known to the unknown.  In this case, we know how we function when we are capable, and we know how we function when we are diminished, but we don’t know how that could be projected onto someone else.  We now understand that we are projecting the difference, not the injury.  We can calculate the difference.  

We also know that each generation will have its own set of ‘knowns’ and ‘unknowns’; Judaism shows us how the words of the Torah will teach this process to each generation, no matter where in time they are placed.  It is how we see the growth and evolution of Torah, and Jewish values, and that this growth was intended from the very beginning.  It is how we understand these laws to be eternal and forever meaningful.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Yitro

It started with a knock on the synagogue door.  The rabbi answered, saw the man looked cold, and offered him a cup of warm tea.  That is how the terrorist entered the synagogue in Texas, last Shabbat.  Our Jewish values opened the door of that shul, as a man, filled with hate, passed the Mezuzah on his way in.

We are grateful of the outcome, as we hear that no one was killed –but someone indeed was killed –the man with the gun never left the shul.  We are commanded not to rejoice at the death of an enemy because it means we failed to fight the hatred, we ended up fighting the person.  We’re grateful that no innocent lives were lost, but we know that what fueled this man continues to exist.

In this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments.  Within these commandments lie the core values of Judaism, not just the laws.  We hear that searching for God is an ongoing journey –we are searching for something singular and unique.  We are told that relationships of family, and community, are the cornerstones of all societies.  We learn that understanding the parameters of ‘what we do’, and ‘what we don’t do’, define things for us.  But the Torah also tells us that the commandments fit within our Judaism, they are not the totality of it.  We are also the children of our ancestors, the ones who taught us to invite in anyone who is in need.

The terrorist was invited to enter because he knocked on the door, and he looked cold.  He stayed for part of the service.  Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told him he is free to remain, or if he was only seeking a moment of warmth, he is free to leave, no one will be offended.  That’s when he revealed his gun.

We are commanded to offer shelter, food, and protection, to anyone in need.  Fear and hatred will not redefine who we are.  Sadly, we know to lock our synagogue doors, but when Rabbi Charlie was asked if he would again offer warm tea to a cold stranger at his door, he confidently said ‘yes’. 

I am grateful that no innocent lives were lost; I am sad that the hatred at the core could not be addressed; I am proud that as children of Abraham and Sarah, we know to always hear a request for help.  May we one day live in a world where the doors of all our shuls can be confidently left unlocked.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Shabbat Shirah

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shirah – the Shabbat of Song, and it’s filled with beautiful moments.  We have come safely through the Red Sea, the Egyptian army has perished, we take our first breath as a free nation, and we burst into song.  It’s a beautiful expression of joy, having just experienced the desperation of standing between the enemy and the sea –cornered.  We could have chosen to blame God for pushing us to the brink of desperation before ultimately saving us, but instead we choose a song of joy.

The midrash focuses on why the verb for singing is mentioned in the future tense.  “Then Moses and Israel will sing (az yashir)”, it is more accurate to relate it in the past or present tense as something that is happening at that moment.  But we are told that the song we choose to sing in the beginning will be the song we choose to sing throughout.  When I start my day, am I choosing to have a good day?  It is a choice I make before anything else happens, and it is the approach I will bring to everyone and everything throughout my day.  

Ultimately, the Sages tell us that this song of joy, the individual song we all compose in our hearts, will be the song we sing when creation is fulfilled.  At that time, every person who ever lived will be granted a final breath, and will then choose how to use it.  The future tense “will sing” is telling us to choose a personal song of joy and gratitude and attach it to our identities.  It is the expression that will first present itself to us when our thoughts form into words.  It is the song we will always choose to sing.

Life brings challenges to us; it is the nature of the created world.  Responding to those challenges with the unique songs we hold inside is how we shape the moment, the day, and ultimately, the world around us.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael